As I stared at myself in the mirror, I thought
'You look like a pig. Pig-girl.'
My eye scrutinised the minutia of my face with a magnified mirror. Up close, it was quite obscene; pores, blemishes and eyelashes 5 times their normal size crawling over my eyelids like black spiders. Disgusting. So with a deft flick I tweezed them all out. It was an imperfection I could control. There was redness of course, but the skin closed behind them as if they had never been there. Close Sesame.
I squinted at myself through folds of perfectly hairless flesh. My eyes were smaller and uglier than they had been. Pig eyes. I felt finally like I was looking at myself. As ugly as I felt inside, I was now outside.
My finger stroked the eyelid of where my eyelashes used to be and I suddenly noticed the black dot of a new eyelash trying to struggle its way to the surface. I knew I had to wait another day before I could pull it out; the root would not yet be a translucent white sphere, but instead a malleable black seed that would stick on the mirror where I could examine it. I itched to get to it; an blot on the otherwise perfectly pink lid.
I was 11. It was the first year of my new school. And also the year my parents divorced. My mother, who taught at a boarding school had taken one of the cottages on the grounds. 'A Godsend' is what she called it. It meant that I could attend my very expensive and academically demanding school during the day, travelling back and forth (a round trip of 4 hours) and then do my homework alone in the library on campus whilst she patrolled the corridors, until the boarders retired and we could go home. My life was pretty ordinary. A child of one of the many fragmented families of the middle class. Privileged. Upwardly aspiring. Socially acceptable. And secretly, very unhappy.
Anxiety disorders are always secret. It is rare that someone who cuts, will parade their cuts out in the open, nor that someone who bites their nails will flutter their fingers. Far more common that the cuts will be on the underside of the arm, under clothing and that person who bites their nails will hide their hands. The desire for secrecy is paramount. And in my world, I needed to keep parts of my life secret from my all invasive, overpowering, socially climbing mother. She would notice of course. Because she noticed everything. And then I would be punished.
But surprisingly wrapped up in her own misery from divorcing my father, she did not. Even though during this time she commissioned a photographer to do a happy mother-daughter portrait which stood on her bedside table. But no one else did either. Who would have guessed that a little girl who was to all the outside world the perfect child, was so busy hating herself? In fact from that day to this, no one ever remarked on the fact that for over a year I had no eyelashes; You'd have to look for it to know it and you'd have to know it, to look for it.
The exhibition of my anxiety was not as severe as cutting, nor as noticeable as pulling out hair on my head (although 'true' hair pulling sufferers will go to extraordinary lengths to disguise it). Mine was only my eyelashes, a tiny effort to break out of my mold, even if I lived in terror that someone would see it. In my head I concocted hundreds of untold stories - why they fell out, when it happened, who I was going to sue for it (we all used Pear's soap back then, so they figured in most of the scenarios).
Back in 1986, I didn't know there was a word for what I did. It was just part and parcel of the many abhorrent behaviours that I thought made up my inadequate self. But over 20 years later, I found one.
Trichotillomania is one of a set of body oriented disorders. In my case it was where my anxiety manifested itself in 'attacking' oneself; a manifestation of low esteem and an inability to match up to what the world - in my case my mother - expects of you. It's masochistic, in some cases dangerous, and in all cases a sign that someone is not able to cope with their reality. Anxiety disorders can be as mild as nail biting, and as severe as cutting, or indeed anorexia. They are more common in teenage females than in any other group and most continue into adulthood. Trichotillomania - or hair pulling - is a type of masochism. And as with all masochistic habits, it is a horribly spiralling circle. The more you pull, the uglier you look, the more shamed you feel and the more anxious you become and the more you pull.
How I cried when I first found out I had been suffering from an illness, after years of thinking that I was just weird and shameful. But I believe the fact that one can name it as a disorder is of limiting value. It gives some kind of permission to someone to rest in the state of anxiety. That anxiety is an acceptable, even normal state to be in. It legitimizes it even if it is of course the first necessary step to getting rid of it.
Nowadays I use writing to regulate my anxiety and create distance between its short-term machinations to survive, and my true self with longer term healthier coping mechnisms. At the time, I had no such tools. But a year later I suddenly stopped. Fate intervened and put paid to my hair pulling compulsive disorder when my mother and I had a car accident on Christmas eve. I went into a coma and nearly died. But it cured my trichotillomania because if you aren't conscious it's difficult to continue a compulsive disorder.
When I woke to a new reality 6 months later it was a different and eyelash full world. And the scars criss-crossing my face meant I was ugly enough not to have to pull them out again.
Written at the request of a friend and fellow sufferer. For those wanting support for trichotillomania have a look at http://www.trich.org/
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